Film Room: Russell Wilson, Again
by Cian Fahey
It's been a peculiar season for Russell Wilson.
After Week 13, Wilson appeared to be the last remaining challenger to Peyton Manning's MVP campaign. The Seahawks were 11-1 and Wilson had just led Seattle to a convincing 34-7 victory over the New Orleans Saints. For the sixth time in 12 games, he had completed over 70 percent of his passes on his way to a 357-yard, three-touchdown, zero-turnover display.
Since then, Wilson's level of play has significantly declined. Over the final four games of the regular season, he threw three interceptions and coughed up two fumbles. The confident, intelligent and exceptionally efficient quarterback was now hesitating and making uncharacteristic mistakes. He was no longer playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Nothing changed when the playoffs started. Wilson's play declined to a depth where some suggested he was just a game manager who couldn't consistently throw from the pocket.
That criticism is fair. Wilson hasn't played well in recent weeks. But just like Joe Flacco's hot streak last season doesn't make him a great quarterback, this cold streak for Wilson doesn't make him a bad quarterback.
Wilson had been somewhat of an outlier because of how consistent he was before he fell into his current slump. That consistency must be qualified during his rookie season, because he primarily played a complementary role on a run-heavy offense with an impressive defense keeping him out of tough situations. That is why Wilson's second season has been so peculiar.
When the Seahawks offense was collapsing around him early in the season, Wilson played his best football. After most of those players returned to the field, Wilson began to struggle.
This article from earlier this season details just how impressive Wilson played during the first 13 weeks of the year. Wilson's mental acumen, physical talent and resilience to repeatedly absorb punishment allowed the Seahawks offense to stay balanced despite missing so many starters for long stretches. That physical punishment may have affected Wilson. The 25-year-old was sacked 44 times during the regular season. Only two quarterbacks were sacked as often, and neither of those players had 96 rushing attempts.
Gauging the impact of hits on a quarterback isn't scientific. However, with Wilson there is a clear lack of comfort and confidence on the field that wasn't evident earlier in the year.
The above chart highlights accurate and inaccurate passes thrown by Wilson in Weeks 1 to 14. It excludes throwaways, passes tipped at the line of scrimmage and spikes. Wilson had an almost unnatural precision and consistency throwing the ball to receivers fewer than 12 yards away from the line of scrimmage. His physical ability to throw the ball allowed him to be accurate to any area of the field in any situation, but it was his quickness diagnosing the defense before and after the snap that really highlighted his efficiency.
When he threw the ball down the field, he put it in spots where only his receivers could catch it. When he threw the ball to receivers underneath, he understood how to place the ball so they were led to space and could catch the ball without breaking stride. This allowed both Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate to excel even after they were unexpectedly elevated to starting roles.
This chart follows the same rules as the first chart, but it looks at games since Week 14. During the first 13 weeks, Wilson threw 52 inaccurate passes on 330 attempts. Since then, Wilson has thrown 29 inaccurate passes on 120 attempts. Wilson is averaging an inaccurate pass once every 4.1 attempts now, compared to once every 6.3 attempts earlier in the season.
Wilson's biggest issue is that the game has sped up around him. This could be the result of a quarterback who is more wary of taking physical punishment. He doesn't appear to be consistently diagnosing plays before the snap or adjusting as quickly after the snap. This is slowing down his whole process before he releases the ball. Both inside and outside of the pocket he is too hesitant and making too many bad decisions.
Late in the second quarter during the NFC Championship game, Wilson and the Seahawks offense were facing a third-and-8. Wilson has three receivers to his left, with a tight end to the right. The tight end stays in to block, so the Seahawks are focusing their attack on the right side of the 49ers defense. Because it's third-and-8, the 49ers are able to play man coverage underneath with both safeties deep at the snap.
Wilson initially looked to his left, but each of his receivers released vertically so he didn't have a quick throw available. After holding the ball for a moment in the pocket, Wilson began to feel the presence of Aldon Smith to his left. Smith was pushing Russell Okung backwards, but Okung was still in a good position to protect his quarterback if Wilson stepped up in the pocket.
At this point in the play, Wilson's eyes have already dropped because of Smith's presence. He isn't looking to step up in the pocket, so he is unable to see his slot receiver, Baldwin, running an out route at the first-down marker. Cornerback Carlos Rogers is in good position to cover Baldwin, but Wilson has the arm strength and accuracy to push the ball to the green area outside of his receiver. That would lead Baldwin towards the first down marker and take Rogers out of the play.
It would have been a tough throw, but one that Wilson routinely made earlier in the year.
Even if Baldwin wasn't an option, Wilson would have had two more options if he had stepped up in the pocket. The first option is Jermaine Kearse, the receiver who initially lined up on the inside of the trio to the left. Kearse is running a deep out route against linebacker NaVorro Bowman. Kearse's route isn't very good, as he rounds his break. This allows Bowman to trail behind him. However, if Wilson leads Kearse to the sideline, then Bowman would be very unlikely to make a play on the ball.
Had Wilson stepped up in the pocket, he would have been able to diagnose the coverage and see that the inside safety was coming forward and the outside cornerback was running down the sideline. This means he would have been able to anticipate Kearse reaching the green spot on the field before anyone else.
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While Wilson turns his head towards his own goal posts and inadvertently runs towards Smith, Tate, the receiver who initially lined up out wide, has got a step on the outside cornerback. Tate is Wilson's final option and this could have easily been a touchdown pass. Tate was running into space because the safety on the other side of the field wasn't deep enough.
Ultimately, this play ends with Wilson flipping the ball to his tight end, Zach Miller, in space. That happens more than 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Miller only gains two yards.
Even at his very best, Wilson was always better working outside of the pocket rather than within it. Not only does he threaten defenses with his feet, but he understands how to use that threat to set up passes. His quick release allows him to find receivers in open space after he's broken from the pocket, while he regularly keeps his eyes downfield so he can take advantage of any big-play opportunities with his arm strength.
Wilson has made a number of questionable plays outside of the pocket in recent weeks. One in particular against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 16 of the regular season stands out.
It's third-and-5 early on in the first quarter with the score tied 0-0. The Seahawks come out with two receivers to either side of the field and Marshawn Lynch next to Wilson in the backfield. Lynch breaks into the right flat, so Wilson has three options to the right side of the field. The young quarterback reads through his progression, but none of his receivers are open. At this point, he is forced from the pocket by a Cardinals defensive lineman.
Wilson didn't leave the pocket too early. He didn't miss any open receiver in his progression and he showed excellent athleticism to get around the edge and extend the play. However, the Cardinals only rushed four players and had another defender spying Wilson underneath. Therefore, he had no running room and none of his receivers came open before he reached the sideline. At this point the smart option for Wilson was to throw the ball away. It was still very early and the score was tied so there was no need for him to take an unnecessary risk.
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Instead, Wilson lofts it high over the middle of the field as he tries to find a receiver. That receiver is ultimately triple covered when the ball arrives. Wilson's pass is underthrown because he tried to force it while on the move and under pressure from one of the pass rushers who had caught up to him. His mistake goes unpunished because Patrick Peterson drops a relatively easy interception and Karlos Dansby does the same.
Wilson isn't prone to turnovers, but he has been responsible for a few during the team's playoff run. On the very first play of the NFC Championship game, Wilson took too long to diagnose the coverage downfield and fumbled instead of finding a wide open Miller underneath. Soon after that he underthrew a pass to Baldwin that was fortunate to be completed after it went through Eric Reid's hands. On that play Wilson could have rushed for a first down instead of forcing a throw to a covered receiver. Later on, he misplaced a handoff to Lynch that resulted in a fumble at the goal line on fourth down.
While Wilson deserves some credit for taking care of the football, he has gone too far in recent weeks. Wilson used to play very smart football, taking risks with the ball only when it was necessary or when there was potential for a big play. He no longer takes those risks, but he is also being too shy with plays that carry no real risk.
There was a perfect example of this during the Divisional Round game versus the New Orleans Saints.
It must be noted that the weather wasn't good, the Seahawks were winning 13-0 and they were facing a second-and-9 at this time. While the situation suggests Wilson should make an extra effort to take care of the football, it doesn't suggest that he should turn down wide open, easy throws underneath. Especially not ones that could turn into huge gains.
It appears that this is a read-option play for Wilson. He can hand the ball off to Lynch in the backfield or throw it out to Percy Harvin on a bubble screen. Wilson makes his read off of the defensive back lined up over Harvin at the snap. When that defensive back immediately rushes into the backfield, Wilson brings the ball backwards to start his throwing motion.
The defensive back has blitzed aggressively, so he has no angle to make a play on any pass that Wilson throws to Harvin. With Wilson's quick release, even an off-target, catchable pass would still be clear of the defender before he could get near it. As we can see from the image above, Wilson also appears to have a good grip on the football in spite of the wet conditions.
Inexplicably, Wilson doesn't throw the ball. He turns his eyes away from Harvin and looks to scramble even though there are no obvious running lanes. There are two unblocked defenders waiting for him, so he is eventually tackled for a very short gain.
Wilson's mistake wouldn't have been so notable if it wasn't compounded by the space Harvin was in. Harvin had two receivers out in front to block the only two defensive backs who had any chance of stopping him before he could get a first down. With good execution from those blockers, it's possible that Harvin could have gone much further.
It's a testament to just how good the Seahawks are as a team that they have reached the Super Bowl at a time when Wilson hasn't been at his best. However, it would be unfair to the young quarterback if we completely ignored the big plays he has also made during this trip.
It's not a coincidence that Wilson's best play of the post-season came when he didn't need to worry about making mistakes. In the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship, on fourth down and losing by four points, Aldon Smith jumped offsides at the snap to give the Seahawks a free play.
When Smith jumped offside the Seattle receivers changed their routes to verticals. The 49ers were playing man coverage against those three receivers, with a single-high safety, Donte Whitner, over the middle of the field. Whitner was dropping backwards at the snap, but he settled in the middle of the field as Wilson looked to his right.
Wilson was smart here. He didn't lead Whitner to his receivers. Instead, he kept moving his head and looked back to the left side of the field before unleashing a pass to Jermaine Kearse.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers had outstanding coverage on Kearse, but Wilson threw one of those perfect deep passes to a spot where only his receiver could catch the ball. Wilson made other impressive plays, but it was fitting that his most impressive one came in that situation, under those circumstances.
He'll likely have to make more of those if the Seahawks are to beat the Broncos on Sunday.